During the years between Engravings and Compassion, Forest Swords' Matthew Barnes became an in-demand composer, and his music for Assassin's Creed: Rogue, a sci-fi film shot entirely by drones (In the Robot Skies), and a dance piece inspired by the human body (Shrine), used his mix of ancient and futuristic sounds perfectly. While some musicians who expand into commissioned pieces let those projects influence their other music, Compassion feels distinct from the rest of Forest Swords' work. While the album's scope approaches that of a score, Barnes takes his music in bolder directions. The album often sounds like the soundtrack to a warrior's training montage, and Compassion's cover image of a man on his back, balancing a boulder on his hands and legs, symbolizes how crucial this feeling of endurance is on the album. Barnes was inspired by the potential for growth during tumultuous times like the late 2010s, and he expresses the duality between crisis and opportunity with the album's expansive arrangements. Brass plays a major role on Compassion, whether it's brash ("War It"), mournful ("Sjurvival"), or a little of both ("The Highest Flood"). There's also much more movement within these songs than on Forest Swords' earlier work, and tracks like "Exalter" transform before listeners' ears while never losing their hypnotic pull. Barnes' artful -- and prominent -- use of vocals underscores Compassion's humanity, particularly on the climactic "Arms Out" and "Panic," where he allows the singer's lament "I feel something's wrong/The panic is on" to ring out instead of chopping it into texture as he does throughout the rest of the album. Despite these changes, Forest Swords' music remains mysterious. Some of Compassion's finest moments, such as the surreally jazzy "Raw Language," the ghostly ebb and flow of "Border Margin Barrier," or the spooky call and response of "Vandalism," are the most tantalizingly elusive. With all of his projects, Barnes continues to challenge himself and his audience, and Compassion's fascinating mix of power and atmosphere is the most finely honed version of Forest Swords yet.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares